Since Uncle Walt released his first full-length movie in 1937, Disney has been the pre-eminent animation studio in the world. But there have been several challengers, most of whom have flailed under the weight of Mickey and friends. Here are some of the most interesting – all now sadly defunct.
Don Bluth Productions/Sullivan Bluth
A 10-year veteran of Disney, Don Bluth struck out on his own in 1979 after getting angry at the way the company was being run.
The artist and his colleagues produced critically-acclaimed though commercially-mediocre ‘The Secret of Nimh’ in 1982, a film lauded particularly for its aesthetics. But despite creating the animated sequences for laserdisc videogame ‘Dragon’s Lair’, Don Bluth Productions went bankrupt in 1984, emerging a year later as Sullivan Bluth.
Based in Ireland, Steven Spielberg produced the company’s next movie, the whimsical mouse adventure ‘An American Tail’, while animals also led dinosaur pic ‘A Land Before Time’ and ‘All Dogs Go To Heaven’ (the latter got a follow-up, while there are 13 ‘Land Before Time’ direct-to-video sequels).
All three films were hits, but financial uncertainty plagued the studio and with Bluth being wooed back to California to head up 20th Century Fox’s animation department, the company went into decline. The box office failure of ‘Thumbelina’ and ‘The Pebble and the Penguin’ put the final nail in the coffin.
Nevertheless, Bluth’s success is said to have inspired Disney to greater heights which finally came to fruition with 1989’s release of ‘The Little Mermaid’ and the subsequent Disney Renaissance.
Halas & Batchelor
Founded in May 1940, the husband-and-wife company is generally regarded as the most influential British animation studio of all-time. Co-founder of Aardman Peter Lord has said, “In our early days we could only dream of aspiring to their stature.”
Starting out by making short animated war propaganda films for the government, their seminal work is the 1954 version of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, which fuelled a fantastical conspiracy theory that it was funded by the CIA.
Weirdly, a sale to Tyne Tees Television in the 1970s meant the company ended up making kids cartoons starring the Osmonds and the Jackson Five, but their 1967 cinematic interpretation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Ruddigore’ is critically acclaimed and their 1964 theatrical satirical short ‘Automania 2000’ won a BAFTA.
Both John Halas and Joy Batchelor died during the 1990s with the former having served as the President of the International Animated Film Association later in his life.
Born in Israel and having worked on early ‘Mighty Mouse’ cartoons, Ralph Bakshi rose to prominence with 1971’s ‘Fritz the Cat’, an X-rated cartoon packed with sex and drugs which remains one of the most successful independent animation films of all-time.
For this generation, he’s perhaps better known for his 1978 animated take on ‘Lord of the Rings’ which used the technique of rotoscoping – aka painting over live-action scenes – a process actually utilised by Disney himself on early movies like ‘Snow White’. Ethereal and more intimate that Peter Jackson’s trilogy, budgetary problems meant that Bakshi’s planned two-film Tolkien series was left frustratingly unfinished.
The filmmaker turned to TV, only returning to the cinema for notorious, if intriguing flop ‘Cool World’ (1992) a mix of animation and live-action starring a young Brad Pitt.
Bakshi is now retired, aged 78.
Fox Animation Studios
As Sullivan Bluth began to disintegrate in the mid-1990s, the boss of 20th Century Fox lured Bluth and his partner Gary Goldman with a sweetheart deal to be heads of this intended Disney rival.
The parent company wasn’t new to animation – they’d previously distributed a couple of lesser Bakshi fantasy flicks as well as future ‘Avatar’ inspiration ‘Ferngully: The Last Rainforest’.
They had a hit right off the bat – 1997’s ‘Anastasia’, featuring the voices of Meg Ryan and John Cusack, made £114m on a £40m budget and was nominated for two Oscars.
Unfortunately, it was a streak of one. Originally intended to be live-action, development issues led Bluth and his team to be tasked with turning science-fiction epic script ‘Titan A.E.’ into a cartoon. Production was difficult – 300 members of staff at the company’s Arizona production facility were sacked during the making of the film and it ended up losing £112million.
Unsurprisingly, Fox Animation Studios was shuttered three weeks after the movie was released in June 2000. Don Bluth has so far never made another feature film.
Buoyed by the success of his input in ‘An American Tail’, Steven Spielberg set up an animation offshoot of his company Amblin Entertainment in the late 1980s.
Based in London, the company produced a Bluth-less sequel called ‘An American Tail: Fievel Goes West’ (1991) and the badly-received ‘We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story’.
Concept art has emerged of the company’s intention to make a screen version of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s ‘Cats’ which never saw the light of day, but it was 1995’s ‘Balto’ which sunk the company. Visually stunning – the animators used oil paints in a break from tradition – the hand-drawn wolf adventure was unfortunate to come out a few days after the first ‘Toy Story’. It had no chance.
Spielberg folded the division into Dreamworks and many of the animators went to work on that company’s epic ‘The Prince of Egypt’.
Image credits: Getty, Rex_Shutterstock